From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
Part 1 here: broad overview and tracing through the changing connotation of the “Computational Metaphor” from one of dehumanization and control to one of anonymity, equality, and freedom.
Part 2 here: On Stewart Brand’s education and the Whole Earth Network.
This is the part with digital communities.
I’m turning up the speed on these notes. The whole book is interesting, can’t rewrite everything. For example, a lot about Xerox PARC and SRI is cut out because I feel it is more commonly known stuff.
The New Communalist movement was dead by the 80’s. Its component communes were emptying out for a variety of reasons: politics, economics, and (predominantly) poor organization. Some took refuge in the New Age movement or in the small religious revivals of the 70’s. Many returned to the mainstream in time to enjoy some incredible economic failings.
So the counterculture died, but as I’ve written several times over the months, it did leave behind values and artifacts ripe for re-appropriating by other cultures. Through connecting the social groups and giving voice to some of their unifying concerns, Stewart Brand seeded the hacker movement with the New Communalist rhetoric.
“As early as 1972, Brand had suggested that computers might become the new LSD, a new small technology that could be used to open minds and reform society.” [Cue 1984 Apple commercial. You know the one.]
In a piece he was commissioned to write for Rolling Stone [“Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums”], he made the Spacewar computer game programmers into countercultural pioneers. Brand wrote about Alan Kay and his Dynabook, ARPANET, and Resource One. “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.”
Turner: “Hackers, [Brand wrote], were not mere ‘technicians’ but ‘a mobile newfound elite, with its own apparatus, language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.'”
Alan Kay and others found the Whole Earth Catalog, and saw it as both an information tool (with a great DIY ethos, etc.) and a hyperlinked information system. “We thought of the Whole Earth Catalog as a print version of what the Internet was going to be.”
“The Catalog performed similar ideological work within two other groups that would play an important role in the imagining the use of computers in countercultural terms: the People’s Computer Company and Resource One.” PCC was heavily inspired by the Catalog and made that very clear in its content- sometimes excerpts from the Catalog, sometimes advertising/selling books by Catalog-connected writers. Resource One was composed of programmers who left UC Berkeley in protest of the Cambodian invasion. It was partially funded by Fred Moore’s “Demise Party money”, and it aimed to “establish public computing terminals at several locations in the Bay area, with an eye toward creating a peer-to-peer information exchange.” Although the abstract idea was thought of in New Left/New Communalist movements before, the idea of doing something like this without a computer (outside of SRI and Xerox PARC)
Time magazine, special issue- Stewart Brand writes an article titled “Welcome to Cyberspace”: “Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the sixties generation is the computer revolution.”
[Turner:] “According to Brand, and to popular legend then and since, Bay area computer programmers had imbibed the countercultural ideals of decentralization and personalization, along with a keen sense of information’s transformative potential, and had built those into a new kind of machine.” It is true-ish rendition of what happens, more selective than false, and certainly claimable in some respects.
Twenty years after the Whole Earth Catalog’s first publication, another network arose using the same model: the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985.
[Larry Brilliant quick bio: technologist and epidemiologist, some counterculture ties including appearing as a doctor in a hit hippie movie in the era, leading figure in the WHO’s smallpox eradication program. Much later would head Google.org (the philanthropic arm of Google), and the Skoll Foundation. Impressive arc in its own right.]
It was the first virtual community of its kind, an influential template for future such communities. It was also in itself an influential network of thinkers, writers, and Grateful Dead fans. It was originally a “dial-up bulletin board system”, and evolved with the infrastructure of the commercial internet as it developed.
Kevin Kelly [editor of Catalog-spinoff “CoEvolution Quarterly” and future exec editor of Wired] on the seven design goals:
That it be free. This was a goal, not a commitment. We knew it wouldn’t be exactly free but it should be as free (cheap) as we could make it…
It should be profit making… after much hard, low-paid work by Matthew and Cliff, this is happening. The WELL is at least one of the few operating large systems going that has a future.
It would be an open-ended universe…
It would be self-governing…
It would be a self-designing experiment… the early users were to design the system for later users. The usage of the system would co-evolve with the system as it was built…
It would be a community, one that reflected the nature of the “Whole Earth” publications. I think that worked out fine.
Business users would be its meat and potatoes. Wrong…
Turner: “Ultimately, [Grateful Dead’s John Perry] Barlow argued that cyberspace offered what LSD, Christian mysticism, cybernetics, and countercultural “energy” theory had all promised: transpersonal communion. ‘In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. […] As a result of [the opening of cyberspace], humanity is now undergoing the most profound transformation of its history. Coming into the Virtual World, we inhabit Information. Indeed, we become Information. Thought is embodied and Flesh is made Word. It’s weird as hell.’ […] Framed as the disembodied, non-hierarchical, high-tech home of computer hackers and other independent types, cyberspace, and its prototypical system, the WELL, constituted fitting alternatives to corporate and governmental hives. In the cybernetic style familiar to readers of the Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly, Barlow held out cyberspace as a simultaneously technological, biological, and social system.”
Ronald Reagan: “In the new economy, human invention increasingly makes physical resources obsolete. We’re breaking through the material conditions of existence to a world where man creates his own destiny.”
In the late eighties and early nineties, Silicon Valley’s innovations scaled out across the world at increasing pace. The WELL and her related groups were used as intellectual and social capital for Brand and Kelly:
Each created new network forums in which formerly distinct communities could come together, exchange legitimacy, and become visible, to one another and to outsiders, as a single entity. In Brand’s case, these communities included representatives of MIT’s Media Lab and the Stanford Research Institute and officers of such corporate giants as Royal Dutch/Shell, Volvo, and AT&T, as well as former New Communalists. In the late 1980s Brand helped turn these individuals into the principals and clients of a small but highly influential consulting firm, the Global Business Network. For his part, Kevin Kelly linked computer simulation experts affiliated with Los Alamos National Laboratory and its offshoot, the Santa Fe Institute, to prairie ecologists, Biospherians, and programmers at Xerox PARC. In a 521-page volume entitled “Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization”, Kelly transformed these scientists and their projects into prototypical representatives of what he claimed was a new era in human evolution.
Turner compares these networks to the Cold War Military-Industrial Complex [on the inside, with their trading zones and interdisciplinarity, not the view from the outside as a Monolith]. These new networks “acquired a new political valence”, as “models of a collaborative world, a world in which technologies were rending information systems visible, material production processes irrelevant, and bureaucracy obsolete.”
Restless (and capable of leaving the surviving networks to their own machination), Stewart Brand left the area for a while. He attended one of the first of Richard Saul Wurman’s TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences and “heard Nicholas Negroponte describe his plans for MIT’s new Media Lab.” It reminded him of an old vision he had to turn the Whole Earth Catalog crew into a research group. He wrote to Negroponte, got a three-month appointment, and moved into Alan Kay’s house. “Surrounded by computer scientists, musicians, and artists, all linked together by e-mail, Brand began to imagine the Lab as an emblem of a techno-tribal future. In that future, as in the New Communalist past, independent interdisciplinarians would take up tools, transform their individual mind-sets, and establish new collectivities built on a shared delight in innovation.” He would write his best-selling profile of the Lab, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, which threaded the Media Lab through two histories: one from the Rad Lab of World War II, and one from the countercultural revolution, through the computer labs of the 1980’s. Like other networks, the Media Lab made demos and was also itself a demo, a prototype for a kind of culture.
The Global Business Network was founded by Peter Schwartz, Jay Ogilvy, Stewart Brand, Napier Collyns, and Lawrence Wilkinson. In its early years, corporate clients would pay annually to access their network through a private website, access materials, and attend training and learning seminars.
Peter Schwartz knew Stewart from their counterculture days (he wrote some for the Whole Earth Review). Schwartz would become a director at the Strategic Environment Center at SRI International. He would then become the head of scenario planning at Royal Dutch/Shell, where they impressively protected Shell against oil shocks using a method of “scenario planning” developed by futurist Herman Kahn.
Schwartz hired Brand to “organize a series of networking events known as the Learning Conferences; those events in turn gave rise to a network organization that, like the Media Lab, would have a substantial impact on public perceptions of digital technology and the New Economy.”
“At the height of the cold war, countercultural artists and communards had hoped to create alternative to bureaucratic technocracy. Now, in the late 1980’s, as the cold war wound to a close, Brand, [Arie] de Geus, and Schwartz melded countercultural and cybernetic rhetoric, practice, and social theory to help corporate executives model and manage their work lives in a post-Fordist economy. The learning networks would model the networks that Brand had worked on before: artifacts that were also networks, environments that can teach and be taught, and social networks that would interconnect. Participants were invited to private conferences and, later, to the WELL.
Jay Ogivly was hired by Schwartz at the SRI and became the director of research for the SRI Values and Lifestyles Program (marketing research), and the two “wanted to design a consulting firm that could take advantage of the networks and networking mind-set that had begun to emerge around the Learning Conferences.” In 1987 these two brought together the other Global Business Network cofounders: Stewart Brand, Napier Collyns (from Shell), and Lawrence Wilkinson (“a Bay area financier and media producer who was president of Colossal Pictures [film and TV]”).
Schwartz envisioned three things GBN would do: “plug [clients into a network of remarkable people… include them in a highly focused and filtered information flow, and… reorganize their perceptions about alternative futures through the scenario method.”
“For founders of GBN, computers were only one of several forces driving the leveling of bureaucracies and the rise of networked patterns of organization. […] for Kevin Kelly, in contrast, computers became signal emblems of a new era in human development”: neobiological civilization.
Kevin Kelly became editor of CoEvolution Quarterly (CQ) [again, a spinoff of Whole Earth Catalog that Brand had launched] in 1984. He was deeply involved in the turn away from the back-to-the-land movements and toward digital technologies. He published writers who appeared on WELL, got interested in early virtual reality, compiled Cyberpunk reading lists, interviewed prominent digital entrepreneurs and researchers and writers like William Gibson, and in 1990 he published “Crime and Puzzlement”, where Barlow “first used the word cyberspace to describe the digital frontier”.
In 1987, the Santa Fe Institute, Apple Computer, and the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Lab sponsored the first Artificial Life Conference. To Kelly this conference validated the “long-standing Whole Earth embrace of systems theory.” His experiences were compiled in his book Out of Control. He brought together four communities in his reporting: the “descendants of the cold war research world [Los Alamos, Xerox PARC, MIT’s Media Lab], Whole Earth affiliates [the WELL, ecologists], designers and theorists in “new forms of computing” [Sim Earth, artificial life, multiple-user dungeons], and corporations [“Benetton, Pixar, Disney”]. He wrote of bee swarms as social systems held together by the exchange of information, basically without hierarchy. He wrote about crowdsourcing and collective computing.
The Atom is the icon of 20th century science… The Atom whirls alone, the epitome of singleness. It is the metaphor for individuality: atomic. It is the irreducible seat of strength. The Atom stands for power and knowledge and certainty. It is as dependable as a circle, as regular as round. […]
Another Zen thought: The Atom is the past. The symbol of science for the next century is the dynamical Net.
The Net icon has no center- it is a bunch of dots connect to other dots- a cobweb of arrows pouring into each other, squirming together like a nest of snakes, the restless image fading at indeterminate edges. The Net is the archetype- always the same picture- displayed to represent all circuits, all intelligence, all interdependence, all things economic and social and ecological, all communications, all democracy, all groups, all large systems.
Markets were like this system, “distributed, decentralized, collaborative, and adaptive.” Firms were like organisms.
By the mid-nineties, Brand and Kelly’s wave of projects to that point were mostly self-sustaining- the Global Business Network, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the WELL, etc.
By 1995 Brand cofounded the Long Now Foundation and its project to build a Ten Thousand Year Clock. Kevin Kelly helmed Wired magazine, a symbol of the Digital Revolution.
Wired founder and editor-in-chief Louis Rossetto: “There are a lot of magazines about technology. Wired is not one of them. Wired is about the most powerful people on the planet today- the Digital Generation. These are the people who not only foresaw how the merger of computers, telecommunications and the media is transforming life at the cusp of the new millennium, they are making it happen.”
Wired Magazine became a touchstone. “Thanks in part to a confluence of extraordinary economic, technological, and political currents, its technocentric optimism became a central feature of the biggest stock market bubble in American history.” Other New Economy publications sprung up all around it.
Jane Metcalfe, cofounder and president (and Rossetto’s wife): “The ’60s generation had a lot of power, but they didn’t have a lot of tools. And in many respects their protests were unable to implement long-term and radical change in our society. We do have the tools. The growth of the Internet and the growing political voice of the people on the Internet is proof of that.”
The governing myth of the end of the century had developed, that America could be freed by the apparently rigid 20th century bureaucracies: “market populism”, embodied across the political spectrum and in the business world. Some of these beliefs anti-system beliefs were attributed to the New Left of the 60s, but Turner has argued that these beliefs were more directly influenced by the New Communalists.
Rossetto himself was at Columbia during the days of the SDS and the increasingly violent police/protest feedback. He was the president of the Young Republicans, though by his junior year “he had begun to think of himself as a libertarian anarchist.” He brought together a circle of the like-minded to read “Wilhelm Reich’s calls for sexual freedom”, McLuhan and Ayn Rand.
Rossetto and Stan Lehr in The New York Ties Magazine [“The New Right Credo- libertarianism”], 1977: “Liberalism, conservatism, and leftist radicalism are all bankrupt philosophies. The only question at issue among their adherents is which gang of crooks and charlatans is to rule society, and for what noble purpose.” [A much older Rosetto recalled: “It wasn’t the Buckleyite conservatism that got me- it was the individualist, anti-statist conservatism that got me.”] Like the New Communalists, he became anti-political. “You have to start with yourself.” He wrote, moved to Europe, met his wife, and created a magazine that would be called Electric Word, that Kevin Kelly would give a positive review. Rossetto would begin coming back to the US to try to bring the magazine there, meeting with journalists (including Kelly).
Electric Word would go out of business but Rossetto and Metcalfe would move to the USA, to start a new lifestyle-and-technology magazine, Millenium (later renamed Wired). He brought the prototype magazine to TED, and Nicholas Negroponte loved it, investing $75k for a 10% stake and promising to write a monthly column. He also brought other investors on board. Rossetto and Metcalfe would start a conference on the WELL, and Bruce Katz (then-head of the WELL) referred them to Schwartz, who brought in GBN cofounder Lawrence Wilkinson to become the chief financial strategist. Kevin Kelly finally signed on as executive editor. Thus Wired was thoroughly stitched into the whole fabric of the Whole Earth network.
Rossetto, 1997: “The mainstream media is not allowing us to understand what’s really happening today because it’s obsessed with telling you, ‘Well, on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand'”.
Turner: “Under conditions of digital revolution, Rossetto believed that a magazine could tell the truth- and achieve distinction- only by ‘not being objective’.”
Rossetto and Metcalfe described their target audience in 1992 as “Digital Visionaries”, average income $75k, the top 10% of “creators, managers, and professionals in the computer industries, business, design, entertainment, the media, and education.” After its third year, Wired was selling 300k/month, 87.9% male, avg 37 years old, $122k income, 90% “professional/managerial” or “Top Management”.
“Wired was not, by and large, opening a window on the world of the WELL per se. Rather, its editors were using their links to the WELL to a variety of other Whole Earth networks and organizations in order to conjure up and legitimate a particular social vision.”
The WELL network was beneath Wired. Wired itself could interface with people who would have found the New Communalists distasteful. The New Right could reference and be referenced by Wired. Newt Gingrich, Esther Dyson, and George Gilder [libertarian telecommunications analyst] could become involved in a “cycle of mutual legitimation”.
Wired nearly IPO’d for some truly insane figures, but Goldman Sachs would withdraw, and a few years later the big bubble busted.
Needless to say, the ideology has survived intact.
I’ll stop here.